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Player to Player: Returning a Serve Hit at the Body

March 31, 2012 04:17 PM
Have a question? Receive advice from your fellow tennis players!
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Player to Player is USTA.com’s regular feature in which everyday tennis players are given a forum to ask advice on the sport they love – and their fellow players will dish out advice. We’ll post a number of the best responses we receive to our question of the week.

Player to Player:
This week's question from Mark:
What are some tips and/or drills you would recommend for improving one's volleys?
Please share your thoughts by e-mailing Player@USTA.com, and include your name and hometown.
Got a question of your own? Send that along, too!

Last week's question from Anping
(Please note: There is no need to send additional responses to this question.)
Are there any tips about how to how return an at-the-body serve? What footwork should I use to avoid being jammed? Thanks.
Player Responses:
Eric R.

You say that serves at your mid-section leave you feeling like it is rush hour at "Jam Central Station?" Get out of that Jam Sandwich with quick reading of the direction shown by the server's racquet face at impact.

Slightly before the serve reaches the net, you must have adjusted to a difficult location with a quick escape step that is diagonally made toward the post. To do this, you need the time advantage of a quick decision.

Look for "tells," like a top poker player. Study your opponent's body language and stance. Know what their patterns are on first serves especially. Top pros certainly do not give away their intentions, but amateurs often will give you a virtual singing telegram that "tells" their location plans.

Amateurs often also have favorite patterns of serving to certain spots on certain game-score situations. Ad-court lefties will go wide more often with hard slice, for instance. Wait till the toss goes up so that you do not give away your counter-attack plans.

Toss may be the biggest "tell" of most servers in terms of its location. Is it forward and to their right for a righty slicer? Or is it slightly behind their body and back, like a kick server will toss?

Now that you have read direction, GET MOVING!!

Balance on your fore foot after a quick split step for balance. See the ball's spin early, and move to your best strike zone with a one-step movement. Find a partner who can imitate these body-serve tactics and Practice, Practice, Practice until the escape footwork becomes second nature.

It is easier for many players to use the backhand slice when the serve does crowd you. Build up your grip, shoulder and forearm muscles so that you can rip inside-out across this crowded ball contact.

Enjoy the Journey.

Coach Leonard, Concord, Calif.

Proper positioning and footwork is vital to returning serves at the body. Here are tips to help:
1) Close for comfort - Have your feet no more than shoulder width apart. Standing with a wide stance offers less mobility and balance. It is more difficult to pivot the body with a position too open. With serves into the body, it is best to concentrate more on pivoting and less on swinging. Swinging will put the racquet behind your body. Pivoting will allow you to get square to the ball. Side-stepping can initiate your pivot.
2) Elbows on the table - A common error is to be in a ready position with the elbows tucked to the sides of the body. I call this the arm-rest position. I correct this by suggesting players picture themselves eating a meal with their elbows on the table. A great visual is sit on a bench while holding the racquet in front of the body. Also you can have someone holding a racquet as if swinging a bat. They'll instantly see how it's important to get the elbows out. It's much easier to get jammed when the arms aren't extended.
3) Do an audible - In football, it's common practice for the offense or defense to call a last-second change if needed. If you find the serves into the body too hot to handle, alter your stance as your opponent makes the service toss. Shift to your stronger side. If it's your forehand, shift more towards your backhand side to set up. Once the service toss is made, often the server won't see your change. Also the server usually will commit to the type of toss made.
4) Bait and switch - This is the opposite of No. 3. Here, you initially stand in your desired spot and bait the server to go wide. You will then shift to the normal position during the toss and drill your return.
5) From a distance - Standing farther back is not a bad idea, either. The fear for returners standing back is wide servers. This isn't the case here. You can definitely buy some reaction time this way.
Two great drills I use for reflex returns. The first is my self-service drill. Stand back far enough from the backboard so that your serve over the netline will bounce back a step ahead of you. Now drive serves and return them. Be sure that the return clears the netline, too. The second drill is simply have someone serve, but you'll stand in closer than normal. Volleying against pace can help with similar movement. Take note that the shot that has the least amount of time in warm-up is the serve return. That's because we usually serve back. The serve return is also the most important shot in a match. Warm up prior with a friend or do the self-serve drill on a wall. Teaching pros and coaches alike all spend a lot of time on teaching the art of receiving. That's because they want their students to keep returning.
Kenny, Chicago

When returning a serve into the body, you need to be ready and block it back, improvise and just get it over as best you can. When you are serving, use many speeds and placements. If you are having problems with the in-the-body serve, maybe move your ready position and/or watch the toss and get ready quicker to hit a forehand or backhand.

Jake, Charleston, W. Va.

When returning a body serve, good preparation is key! You must split step as your opponent hits the ball, otherwise you will have no momentum to help you move out of the way of the shot. Focus on using your opponent's pace, and just block the return back. When deciding on which side to return from (forehand or backhand), think about which side you are strongest from, the direction and spin the ball is coming from, and which side of the court you are on. Typically, I prefer to hit deuce-side body serves with my forehand and ad-side body serves with my backhands. This way, my momentum carries the ball and me into the court so I am in better position for the next shot.
*Please note that any advice given out in this forum should in no way be confused with actual medical advice. Before starting any new exercise regimen or altering your existing one, we strongly urge you to consult with your regular physician.
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